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Playground power: harnessing children's energy and not being blinded by it!

The children have just lined up at the end of break and as you look down at their rosy, panting faces, you think to yourself, "How are they going to calm down enough to concentrate for the rest of the afternoon?" Leading them back to class is full of excitable chatter and pushing out of line, playful tussles and shouting and you find yourself calling out, "Err, Year 3! I know we all know how to line up quietly! Why is there so much shouting?"Sound familiar?

By the time you have reached the classroom, there are already several children who have been reprimanded, and the tiny amount of relaxation you tried to cultivate in the staff room on your lunch break has been shattered: you're irritated and they are restless: what a way to start a lesson!

The best place to start here is to talk about energy. Motivational speaker T. Harv. Eker reminds us:

"Energy is contagious: either you affect people or you infect people."

Never was this more true than in the playground or at a children's party. As human beings, we are designed specifically to match feelings and energy from those around us to help us empathise with them and make sense of the environment. It's why we cry at sad movies, laugh when someone has the giggles and find yawning so contagious. We use this ability to predict others intentions and to perceive threats. Adults have a more developed database of references because we have been around longer. That database is full of experiences and reference points helping us make sense of others' behaviour, to predict what they are thinking or feeling. Think of them as the social signposts for more harmonious and safer living: our cues and clues.

Children are still cultivating this resource. As a result, they are much more susceptible to taking on others feelings and emotions, particularly in a high stress environment such as a party or in the playground. In short, children catch energy just as easily as Chicken Pox or the Common Cold without being able to differentiate it from their own.

The Neuroscience behind this incredibly valuable ability is down to something called Mirror neurons. Mirror neurons are brain cells that activate when we make a movement or we see someone else do something, be it a physical action or a change in body language or facial expression. We learn to understand the intention behind the action by mirroring them ourselves. When we can understand what the other person's intention is behind the action, we can evaluate if this person is a threat to us or not and our brain will respond accordingly to keep us safe.

In the playground or at a party or play date, there are usually some high energy levels as children match each others' excitement and pace. Physical energy exertion is not only good for children physically but also mentally. The increase in heart rate pumps more Oxygen and Glucose to the brain increasing mental alertness and the ability to learn. However, the excitement of playing combined with the overwhelming experience of catching lots of other feelings, also brings up the chemicals released during Fight, Flight or Freeze, (the brain's evolutionary response to identifying and managing threats). Once all these chemicals have been released and the brain has assessed that there is no threat, if we don't take a moment to ground these children, the chemicals stay present. This causes the Sympathetic Nervous system (our survival instincts) to stay online, so the brain is still wired to react. Instantly we have children that can't concentrate or sit still and that react aggressively or anxiously to new stimulus presented.

What we need to do is to encourage the Parasympathetic part of the Nervous System to come online instead. This is designed for "Rest and Digest". In other words, this is the side of the Nervous System that is switched on when we are relaxed, content and better able to learn.

So now we understand why children act the way they do, what can we offer to help them better self-regulate at the end of a high energy activity to calm and refocus?

Anyone who has felt the effects of Adrenaline in their system will know that switching it off is hard to do. Adrenaline release is often associated with emotions like Fear and Anger but is actually released with surges of any powerful emotions including Excitement and Joy. To stop the release of Adrenaline and allow the effects to dissipate, we need to offer the children an opportunity to co-regulate using a calm, grounded model as the guide for their Mirror neurons. Imitating the modelled behaviour sends messages to the Parasympathetic Nervous System that it's time to calm. There is no threat.

Here are four simple methods you can try in the classroom or at home to switch on the Parasympathetic Nervous System in your children making them less stressed and therefore more able to focus and communicate clearly:

i. Grounding

It can be cold and wet when you're lining up in the playground; or you have a lot to cover in the lesson after break. Maybe you're trying to get home after a kids party to get dinner on or you need to finish that chore that has been alluding you all day. Hurrying the kids onward is not the way: trust me, taking a moment now, before you start the next activity together, could really change how the rest of the day goes for all of you.

Simple Grounding exercises reconnect children with their breath, heart rate and encourage them to listen to the adults' voice for instruction; helping them cultivate a much calmer, focused energy for the tasks ahead.

In the line out in the playground, try this - using a calm and gentle tone. (Remember those Mirror Neurons: what you model they will copy!):

"Ok everybody I’d like you all to stand still for a minute as best you can.

You can close your eyes if you like, or just find a point on the floor to look at.


Now I’d like you to notice how your body feels after all the running around at break time.

Do you feel hot, or cold? Do you feel tingly all over or a bit tired?

However you’re feeling just notice it and try your best to stand tall and still.


Now I would like you to press your feet firmly into the ground. Feel your toes in your shoes and your feet on the floor.

We are going to breathe in through our nose for 3 counts and then out through our mouths for three counts.

If you like you can imagine that you are blowing out candles:

Breathe in 1…2…3…

And then breathe out 1…2…3…

Good let’s try again: breathe in for 1…2…3…

And then blow those candles out for 1…2…3…

Good. Now I’d like you to keep practising that breathing while we imagine that your feet that you have so brilliantly pressed into the ground have found a source of magical energy in the ground beneath you.

It’s warm and golden and safe.


This energy is going to give you extra special powers in class today to really help you concentrate and be the best you can be.

This lovely, golden warm energy is going to travel up through the ground and into your shoes, warming up your toes and ankles. Wriggle your toes in your shoes and notice how your toes feel.

Now imagine that the energy is travelling up your legs, to your knees; making you feel warm and relaxed.

It travels up your spine to your tummy and circles around a little bit, imagine the warm swirly feeling in there.


Now that very special energy is travelling up through your chest.

If you like, you can put your hand on your heart and feel it beating softly as the energy warms you up.

Remember to keep your breathing going: in through your nose 1...2…3… and out 1…2…3…good

Now feel that the lovely, golden energy is spreading, through your chest up to your shoulders and down your arms, it circles round your elbows and travels to your wrists and hands.

Imagine that golden light travelling all the way to each of your fingers, making them feel warm and tingly and magical. You can wiggle your fingers if you like to make sure the energy gets right to the very tips.

Lastly, the energy carries on up your neck to your head. It gentle swirls around your brain lighting it up and powering you ready for your next lesson.

You feel calm, and safe and grounded.

Imagine yourself, standing where you are, glowing, full of all this beautiful, gentle energy. See yourself shining, ready for what you are going to do next.

Now, when you are ready, you can start to open your eyes. If you like, you can slowly raise your arms and have a big stretch and then you are going to quietly follow Ms….. Into the classroom and find your seat."

This should take 5 minutes or less. Make full use of the pauses. They are really good opportunities for everyone to slow down. You could even record this and have it playing through your smartboard or iphone so the children can fully focus on the voice and not you. (As recommended by staff who tested this exercise out with their class.)

ii. Body scans

If you have five minutes at the start of the lesson, you could try an (age-appropriate) mindful body scan designed for kids, that encourages them to really tune into their bodies and become present in the moment, rather than still reliving the playground antics that happened a few minutes before. There are plenty to be found on Youtube, which are also totally appropriate to try at home together, so have a look around. I particularly like this one:

Body Scan Meditation by GoZen!

iii. Guided relaxation

Or try a guided relaxation exercise to bring the class together, ready for the next lesson.

Peace Out Guided Relaxation for Kids

iv. Change the background noise and tempo

Playing relaxing music can also really help to set the tone, in the car, at home or in the classroom as you begin a new journey or activity and want to change the energy. Try something like this:

Why do these exercises work?

Mindful body scans and grounding exercises are really successful in calming the energy of adults and children because it offers the opportunity for a non-judgemental focus on your body, moment to moment. This focused attention living in the present, transports us away from the past and is an opportunity to attune to what we are thinking and feeling without distraction. If practised regularly, exercises like these can increase physical awareness, decrease tension and stress and ultimately create calmer, happier people. Our bodies are brought back to a relaxed neutral state, rather than carrying the tension and energy around from previous experiences that day.

Have a go yourself, I'd love to hear about your results.

And remember, catching feelings is totally normal for you and your child, but what you do when you catch them is a choice. Pause for a minute and ask yourself if this is the energy you want to carry around. If it's not, tune in and turn on that "Rest and Digest" sign so that everyone around you can see it...and imitate it too!

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